Manhattan DA Gets Trump Tax Records

The Supreme Court refused to block a lower court order.

The long legal fight over Donald Trump’s taxes appears to be over after the US Supreme Court declined to intervene. Pete Williams reports for NBC (“Supreme Court won’t stop grand jury from getting Trump’s tax returns“):

The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to block a New York grand jury from getting President Donald Trump’s personal and corporate tax returns, a decisive defeat in his prolonged legal battle to keep his tax records out of the hands of investigators.

The ruling does not mean the returns will become public any time soon, and they might never be publicly released. Under state law, materials turned over to a grand jury must be kept secret. But Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance can now require Trump’s accountants to turn over the records that the president has steadfastly refused to surrender to prosecutors or Congress.

“The work continues,” Vance said in response to the Supreme Court order.

Vance is seeking tax returns covering eight years for a grand jury investigation of hush money payments and other financial transactions. The investigation began after it was disclosed that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen paid Stormy Daniels $130,000 to keep quiet about her claim that she had an affair with Trump, an allegation the former president has denied.

Cohen also alleged to Congress that the Trump organization sometimes lied about its financial condition in order to evade taxes or obtain favorable loan terms.

In July, the Supreme Court rejected Trump’s contention that as a sitting president, he is immune from any part of the criminal justice system — including grand jury investigations. But the decision said he could go back to the lower courts and make the same arguments available to anyone trying to defeat a subpoena.

A month later, a federal judge in New York ruled against Trump’s renewed effort to get the subpoena tossed out, describing the legal attack as merely a repackaged version of his original immunity argument. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling.

The Trump legal team said the subpoena was vastly over-broad and issued in bad faith to harass him. If all Vance was looking at was the payments made by Cohen, they said, that wouldn’t explain why Vance simply copied a much broader subpoena issued by a congressional committee.

The first subpoena issued by a state for the records of a sitting president should have been properly tailored, they told the Supreme Court.

“Its near limitless reach-in time, scope, and geographic reach-has all the hallmarks of a fishing expedition,” his lawyers told the Supreme Court. “And the fact that the subpoena was issued to a third-party custodian while tensions were running high between the Trump Organization and the district attorney, and for dubious reasons of efficiency, only makes the allegation of bad faith that much more plausible.”

But in recent court filings, Vance has hinted that the scope of his work may be broader than just the hush money payments.

“The investigation concerns a variety of business transactions and is based on information derived from public sources, confidential informants, and the grand jury process” and could include falsifying business records, insurance fraud, and tax fraud, Vance told the appeals court.

Now that the Supreme Court has cleared the way for Vance to enforce the subpoena, the president has exhausted his legal options to block it. The full tax return documents, or portions of them, would become public only if Vance brings criminal charges at some future date and seeks to introduce them as evidence.

Trump’s years of trying to hide behind non-existent immunity based on his former office—and, frankly, the Supreme Court’s allowing it to drag out long enough to run out the clock—was highly problematic. It’s frustrating that this is now playing out after he’s out of office.

The odiousness of Trump the politician and Trump the businessman aside, I’m generally skeptical of granting prosecutors carte blanche in digging through people’s private records, including their tax returns, absent compelling evidence that they are likely reveal substantial criminal misconduct. “Fishing expeditions” are very much a real thing and they’re especially likely with politically-elected district attorneys going after high-profile individuals in an effort to make a name for themselves. Further, it strikes me as problematic that the scope of the investigation continues to expand.

That said, I don’t pretend to have followed the finer details of the New York case closely enough to have a strong opinion on the legal merits. One hopes the judges along the way properly safeguarded Trump’s civil liberties, notwithstanding how awful he is as a human being. Awful people have rights, too.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Supreme Court
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kathy says:

    Seeing as Trump is pretty much an unindicted co-conspirator in a campaign finance case, which resulted in a guilty plea, I’d say there’s ample reason for looking at his tax returns.

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  2. Sleeping Dog says:

    I’m generally skeptical of granting prosecutors carte blanche in digging through people’s private records, including their tax returns, absent compelling evidence that they are likely reveal substantial criminal misconduct.

    I’d agree with you, if that were the case of a VA DA requesting James Joyner’s tax returns or a NH DA requesting Sleeping Dog’s returns, but in the case of Trump the inquiry is a result of the previous conviction of a Trump partner. With Trump himself, likely to have been an unindicted partner in that crime. There was also the possibility of tax and/or insurance fraud based on the valuation of his properties. It is reasonable to conclude, as the courts have, that tax records are pertinent to those investigations. Beyond that there is a long history of prosecutors, at all levels, of following the money from small infractions to larger ones. That’s pretty much the history of the DoJ’s prosecution of organized crime and innumerable white collar prosecutions.

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  3. Jen says:

    I’m generally skeptical of granting prosecutors carte blanche in digging through people’s private records, including their tax returns, absent compelling evidence that they are likely reveal substantial criminal misconduct.

    I’m sure that there’s plenty of compelling evidence that they will likely reveal substantial criminal misconduct. After all, we’ve already seen his kids get in trouble for skimming from a children’s cancer charity, and Trump himself has gotten in hot water for misusing funds from his own foundation. And that’s just the stuff we know about.

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  4. Not the IT Dept. says:

    I’m starting to think James is trolling us.

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  5. Michael Cain says:

    @Jen: Many years ago, an acquaintance who was in a position to know said that anyone doing large real estate deals in NYC and NJ as far down as Atlantic City was technically guilty of money laundering: there was simply so much dirty money sloshing around that it was impossible to avoid it all. Also that the DAs and USAs almost always ignored the casual cases because it was so hard to avoid. Purely speculation, but their perseverance suggests they think they have found large amounts and/or clear intentions.

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  6. CSK says:

    Michael Cohen testified that Trump inflated the worth of his assets for insurance purposes and deflated it for tax purposes on a regular basis. Both are crimes, and certainly explain why he’s so desperate to keep his tax returns hidden.

    His excuse for not making his returns public was always that he was being audited. But the IRS has made it perfectly clear that being audited doesn’t prevent you from releasing your returns.

    Trump once said that not paying taxes proved he was smart. Apparently he doesn’t know the difference between tax avoidance (legal) and tax evasion (illegal).

    Trump reminds me of a guy I knew long ago: If there were nine honest, profitable ways to do something, he’d invariably choose the tenth dishonest, unprofitable way. He simply couldn’t resist being a crook.

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  7. inhumans99 says:

    @Not the IT Dept.:

    Heh, I totally believe that James knew exactly what types of reactions he would get from the commentariat when he put up this particular post (it was guaranteed to “trigger” a lot of folks on this site). Keep in mind that as long as we are not rude to the host and primary writers (and considering his latest post commenting on the discourse on this site, I should include being polite to each other in the comments section) on this site James is cool with a whole lot of people piling on him to say I love you bro…but let me tell you why you are wrong about XYZ.

    What I like about James is that he does not let every single comment that says he is wrong about something get under his skin, rather, if it is not just 1 or 2 folks but pretty much everyone trying to provide a reason for why he might want to reconsider his thoughts on a certain subject I have always felt that James was willing to take in what folks say and perhaps, even if it is just on the margins, let folks persuade him that perhaps what they are saying is indeed worth taking into consideration.

    Of course, that is what makes this such a great site to visit on a daily basis for most of the regulars on this site.

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  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Michael Cain:
    Trump copped a plea to money laundering at his failed Atlantic City casino, years ago. He paid a fine. It looks a bit as if the bankruptcy might have been a direct result of Trump no longer being able to launder Russian mob money through his casinos.

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  9. James Joyner says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: @inhumans99: Mostly, I just haven’t kept that close of tabs on this particular case but my impression is that it’s among the weaker of the cases against Trump. Beyond that, I’m mostly stating my broader priors that I’m highly skeptical of elected DAs going on fishing expeditions to against celebrity figures to increase their stature.

    A recent FT summary that I’ve read since validates the sense that there’s definitely something of a case here but that the New York state and, especially, Federal cases are likely stronger.

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  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Further, it strikes me as problematic that the scope of the investigation continues to expand.

    Question: Are you saying they should ignore evidence of criminal behavior that they might uncover, if it lies outside the parameters of their original investigation?

    Cause if so I’m pretty sure there are a number of mob bosses in prison who would love to hear your novel legal arguments in support of such a position.

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  11. Barry says:

    @James Joyner: “but my impression is that it’s among the weaker of the cases against Trump”

    James, how would you (or I) know this?

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  12. EddieInCA says:

    @James Joyner:

    Mostly, I just haven’t kept that close of tabs on this particular case but my impression is that it’s among the weaker of the cases against Trump.

    Actually, this is one of the stronger cases against Trump, as the evidence will show. Trump bought a property “Seven Seas Estate” property for only $7.5 million in 1996 and in 2012, he valued the property at a whopping $291 million to get a loan. He valued the property at 8 million come tax time. Both are lies. One is a bank fraud. One is a tax fraud. Both easy to prove, with documentation.

    Trump will be indicted on both bank fraud, and tax fraud, as I’ve been sayng for years. I’ve said that based on friends of mine in NYC who know how crooked the guy has been for 40 years; like literally know as in they did business with him back in the 80’s.

    HL92 has spoken to this as well a few times.

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  13. CSK says:

    According to thehill.com, Trump’s in a rage about the Supreme Court decision, raving about witch hunts.

    He also took the opportunity to screech about having the election stolen from him.

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  14. Teve says:

    @EddieInCA: I expect Trump will be shown to have done approximately 10 billion deals like that. Like HST said about Nixon, “He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning.”

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  15. Kathy says:

    trump should be charged with manslaughter for his mishandling of the pandemic.

    So should a bunch of other national leaders, like Lopez Obrador, Bolsonaro, and others.

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  16. Grewgills says:

    Trump’s statement on the pending release of his tax returns

    This investigation is a continuation of the greatest political Witch Hunt in the history of our Country, whether it was the never ending $32 million Mueller hoax, which already investigated everything that could possible be investigation, “Russia Russia Russia,” where there was a finding of “No Collusion,” or two ridiculous “Crazy Nancy” inspired impeachment attempts where I was found NOT GUILTY. It just never ends!

    So now, for more than two years, New York City has been looking at almost every transaction I’ve ever done, including seeking tax returns which were done by among the biggest and most prestigious law and accounting firms in the U.S. The Tea Party was treated far better by the IRS than Donald Trump. The Supreme Court never should have let this “fishing expedition” happen, but they did. This is something which has never happened to a President before, it is all Democrat-inspired in a totally Democrat location, New York City and State, completely controlled and dominated by a heavily reported enemy of mine, Governor Andrew Cuomo. These are attacks by Democrats willing to do anything to stop the almost 75 million people (the most votes, by far, ever gotten by a sitting president) who voted for me in the election—an election which many people, and experts, feel that I won. I agree!

    The new phenomenon of “headhunting” prosecutors and AGs—who try to take down their political opponents using the law as a weapon—is a threat to the very foundation of our liberty. That’s what is done in third world countries. Even worse are those who run for prosecutorial or attorney general offices in far-left states and jurisdictions pledging to take out a political opponent. That’s fascism, not justice—and that is exactly what they are trying to do with respect to me, except that the people of our Country won’t stand for it.

    In the meantime, murders and violent crime are up in New York City by record numbers, and nothing is done about it. Our elected officials don’t care. All they focus on is the persecution of President Donald J. Trump.

    I will fight on, just as I have, for the last five years (even before I was successfully elected), despite all of the election crimes that were committed against me. We will win!

    WoW! He is the eloquentest!!!

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  17. EddieInCA says:

    @Grewgills:

    I see your Trump statement and raise you one Michael Cohen Statement:

    Former President Donald Trump’s ex-attorney Michael Cohen told MSNBC’s Katy Tur that he thinks his old client ought to start looking into getting a “custom made jumpsuit.”

    https://www.msnbc.com/the-reidout/watch/michael-cohen-predicts-an-indictment-against-trump-sooner-than-later-101426757675

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  18. Lounsbury says:

    @EddieInCA: While not disagreeing that indeed its long been known in financial circles that Trump is a legal risk nightmare (as in where there is smoke there is fire, the statement “One is a bank fraud. One is a tax fraud. Both easy to prove, with documentation.” is too aggressive. Not easy to prove, given any number of variables, but with good documentation provable.

    How much successful obfuscation Trump managed to do with proper competence is an open question, given the clumsiness that the Porn Star payoffs showed.

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  19. Lounsbury says:

    @Kathy: charging national leaders with criminal charges over such things resolving to incompetence is in fact even as a rhetorical play an extremely bad idea. Extremely bad.

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  20. Kathy says:

    @Lounsbury:

    There’s incompetence, and then there’s knowing how dangerous the virus is, as Trump did, and downplaying it because enacting protections would hurt his reelection chances.

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  21. CSK says:

    @Grewgills:
    He was “successfully elected,” ones supposes, as opposed to “unsuccessfully elected.”

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  22. Barry says:

    @Lounsbury: “charging national leaders with criminal charges over such things resolving to incompetence is in fact even as a rhetorical play an extremely bad idea. Extremely bad.”

    Please, in English.

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  23. Forunato says:

    @EddieInCA:
    Lest we forget..
    New York City native, businessman, notorious crime boss and lifelong criminal Al ‘Scarface’ Capone terrorized a nation for nearly 7 years. And what was it that finally allowed the Feds to send this lifelong criminal, ‘Public Enemy No. 1’, to prison?

    Tax evasion.

    11 years.
    From the, ‘Did you know’, file –
    In May of 1932 Capone was sentenced to prison, first in Atlanta, then Alcatraz. Upon his arrival in Atlanta, the 250-pound Capone was officially diagnosed with syphilis and gonorrhoea. He was also suffering from withdrawal symptoms from cocaine addiction.
    While at Alcatraz, Capone’s neurosyphilis progressively eroded his mental faculties. His formal diagnosis of syphilis of the brain was finally made in February 1938. (it was March 1942 before the first American would be treated with penicillin) Capone would spend the last year of his Alcatraz sentence in the hospital section, confused and disoriented.
    In 1946 (after being released), his physician and a Baltimore psychiatrist examined him and concluded that Capone had the mentality of a 12-year-old child. Capone would suffer a stroke and die shortly thereafter, at the age of 48.

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  24. CSK says:

    Syphilis…gonorrhea…addiction…

    Sounds familiar.

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  25. Lounsbury says:

    @Kathy: Criminalizing incompetence is a stupid, short-termist ideologically blinkered move. It is stupid. Period. That Trump is a failure and an awful person and an even worse President does not make it a good idea to prosecute. Nor for his Brazilian counterpart either.
    @Barry: You mean something easier for the provincial reader who struggles with joined up reading?

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  26. DrDaveT says:

    @Lounsbury:

    That Trump is a failure and an awful person and an even worse President does not make it a good idea to prosecute.

    On the other hand, the fact that he is a chronic repeat offender, guilty of many actual crimes, makes it a good idea to prosecute. His failure as a person and as a President has nothing to do with it.

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  27. Unsympathetic says:

    Trump’s mobbed up
    I’ll take David Cay Johnston’s meticulous sourcing over Trump’s innocent mouth noises.
    The purpose of getting and poring over Trump’s taxes is to prove it.

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